The owner of a controversial McKinley Park asphalt plant, cited eight times by Chicago inspectors for pollution violations last year, is asking a state court to overturn $4,000 in fines recently assessed by the city.
The fines, handed out last month for two citations in spring 2020, were the first for any alleged pollution violations for the plant built directly across from McKinley Park on Pershing Road, an operation that has drawn hundreds of odor and nuisance complaints from nearby residents over the past three years.
MAT Asphalt, which is co-owned and operated by city contractor Michael Tadin Jr., filed a complaint last week in the Chancery Division of Cook County Circuit Court against Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady and Patricia Jackowiak, the chief administrative law judge for the city, after being fined for air pollution and the handling of materials that can create dust. A court hearing date is set for Feb. 15.
During one of the visits to the facility in April 2020, a city health inspector cited dust and other material in the air, trucks leaving the area with airborne emissions from their loads and a foul odor.
“The wind was blowing directly at me during this inspection,” an inspector wrote. “I observed the odors of rotten eggs and fine particulate was blowing at me.”
Tadin declined to comment but has said that complaints about his asphalt plant are overblown. He’s previously provided the Chicago Sun-Times with a report from a consultant he hired that suggests odors may be coming from other sources in the neighborhood.
“MAT Asphalt takes every reasonable precaution to combat emissions and fugitive dust and complies with all [state environmental] emissions regulations and standards,” Tadin’s lawyer Mara Georges told the Sun-Times.
The April citations were just the first for alleged violations for MAT. In July 2020, additional citations were issued. A city inspector during one visit described strong odors that smelled of chemicals or sulfur.
“These odors are very uncomfortable to inhale and instantly made me nauseous,” the inspector wrote.
A spokeswoman for the city law department declined to comment. A city public health spokesman confirmed that the fines were the first for MAT. A hearing date has not been set for citations assessed in July 2020. City records show about 180 complaints have been made about the plant, largely related to odor. State officials also have fielded complaints.
There’s much more at stake than the fines Tadin received last month. The plant has been operating under a state-issued construction permit that was supposed to be temporary until it went through a full review of environmental factors for a full-time operating permit that typically is issued for 10 years. But the COVID-19 pandemic has upended that process and it’s unclear when MAT will get its review.
One community group said the city is moving slowly on policing air pollution and suggested that plants such as MAT should be surrounded by air monitors.
“It took the city a year and a half for this violation to lead to a tiny fine they refuse to pay,” said Alfredo Romo, executive director of Neighbors for Environmental Justice. “We need real enforcement. Every facility with a city air pollution permit should have a city monitor.”
Amid the complaints to the city, state and federal officials about the MAT operation, politicians are weighing in. Illinois U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year to oversee the state permit review to make sure there are strict rules to protect residents from pollution.
The senators also noted that McKinley Park is an environmental justice community, a reference to a low-income community of color that has an inordinate amount of pollution and other health hazards. President Joe Biden has said addressing environmental justice is a priority of his administration.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul also said he’s concerned about the number of complaints around MAT and confirmed in July that he was gathering information about the matter.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration stalled a low-income housing project next to MAT last year because of health concerns and even asked Tadin to provide an estimate of how much it would cost the city to move his plant somewhere else. City officials backed off that idea after Tadin’s consultant estimated a $32 million price tag to move just hundreds of feet from the existing operation.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.